“The average attention span is just 8 seconds”
“Each generation can focus less and less”
“Technology is ruining the youth’s ability to pay attention!”
Stop us if you’ve heard these before.
Wild claims and incorrect assumptions about attention spans have been around for a long time. And it’s not just gossip or schoolyard stories, Microsoft, The New York Times, Forbes, and USA Today are among the hundreds of reputable media outlets telling you we’re moving towards having ‘the attention spans of a goldfish’, with 8 often being the number of seconds thrown out as our maximum.
But let’s debunk this right off the bat.
Have you ever watched a movie? Did you need to remind yourself to pay attention roughly 900 times in 2 hours? No? Well, it seems like you can pay attention for more than 8 seconds. And if you don’t want to take our word for it, take it from real, peer-reviewed, capital-s Science.
So what’s the deal? Why do we keep hearing these claims as though they’re fact?
Saying “attention spans are shortening every year for the first time in human history” makes great headlines. But it’s not the full story. You know what else is happening on a yearly basis that didn’t happen for most of human history? Technology is advancing. Fast. Really really fast.
It’s not so much that our attention spans are shrinking, or growing, as it is our brains having to function in new ways.
The Times They Are A Changin’
Sitting in a forest for hours on end waiting for a deer to come by so you can feed your family required a lot of attention paid to a single thing. But that’s not the reality for most of us anymore.
Now, we’ve literally got all of the information our species has collected in our pocket. Of course we’re jumping from one thing to another with reckless abandon! How could we not? It’s fun. It’s exciting. And most of all, it’s enriching.
But it’s not just an addiction. The access to information also brings with it some serious drawbacks. 100 years ago it wasn’t as easy to know about a war on the other side of the planet. Or see climate change happening in another country so vividly that it feels like it’s just outside your door. Our world shrinking means that all the world’s problems also feel closer to home. You know what that causes? Stress! You know what stress isn’t good for? Attention spans.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Many studies that tout the ‘8 second attention span’ also miss a fundamental point. Humans aren’t either ‘on’ or ‘off’, there are many different ways in which we pay attention to things.
The Types Of Attention
This is what we classically think of when talking about attention span. It’s our ability to focus on a single, consuming activity for a sustained period of time. Think meetings, exams, or movie watching.
When you’re working at your desk, do you forget that you have coworkers (or kids/pets etc. if you’re at home)? Of course not! Mostly because they’re making noises or are otherwise vying for your attention. Selective attention is our ability to concentrate on a task when there are distractions around us.
Another name for divided attention is multitasking. You stir a pot and read a recipe at the same time, that doesn’t mean you’re not able to focus on either. This can be taxing on the brain though, and it turns out we’re often less productive at both things while trying to do them simultaneously.
The Modern Reality Of Attention Spans
It’s in divided attention that we find the crux of the problem. In today’s world we’re constantly connected. To our jobs. To current events. To each other. And all these things are constantly competing for our attention. If you’re trying to read and get smacked in the face, you’re not going to just keep reading, you’ll look up! This is what our technology is doing to us (although less violently) — infusing our existence with a nonstop onslaught of distractions, causing stress. In the end, this doesn’t mean we’re getting worse at paying attention. But it means we might need to work on ignoring external disruptions while focusing on what we need to get done.
Our attention span isn’t dwindling. We’re just facing distractions like never before.
The Takeaway For Marketers
While claims of the dwindling attention span often lead ‘experts’ to start touting shorter, ‘snackable’ content, that may not always be the right approach. As mentioned, you’re more than capable of paying attention to a full movie or reading a full article (thank you) so evidently we can pay attention if the content is engaging enough.
Clearly the solution for marketers is to only create quality, engaging, grippy content.
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